Guest Opinion

Sep 27, 2013
by WLJ

Born & raised in the USA before it was COOL

For the past 13 years I have had a front row seat to one of the most important issues facing the beef industry: the issue of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). As a member of former Congressman Chenoweth’s labeling task force, as well as a member of NCBA’s Marketing Committee and a former officer in the California Cattlemen’s Association, I have listened to all sides of the debate and I have experienced firsthand the effects of government undermining private marketing efforts. I have watched it all and I have tried to explain the pitfalls of switching from the early efforts to maintain a foreign label throughout production to the opposite position—and assumption—that legislation was needed to “allow” us to put a U.S. label on U.S. product.

In 2001, I attended the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association annual meeting in San Antonio, TX. That year, the debate over COOL was really heating up and it occurred to me that if producers really wanted to put a U.S. label on their product, they should have the choice to do it. We could have a “Born and Raised in the USA” label on our product. In fact, anybody who wanted to label their products as born, raised, and processed in the USA and who met the qualifications could do so without saddling the industry with onerous regulations that come with a government-run program. Moreover, we had the ability with a privately-run program to market beef as we saw fit, without disturbing the export market. We would develop a label for our program that we felt would speak to the consumer who was seeking this type of information, a broad colored label, with the American flag and “Born & Raised in the USA®.” This is a label that leaves no mistake as to what it stands for.

Then in the 2002 Farm Bill, mandatory COOL was passed, although it wouldn’t be fully enacted until 2008. And that killed our business. Here we had a label that offered everything the proponents of mandatory U.S. COOL wanted. It was a US- DA-approved label that specified a product was born, raised and slaughtered in the USA, with a verification system to back it up. But instead of supporting that label, or the dozens of other industry-led labels available to us, some in our industry supported MCOOL, a government run mandatory program. Here we were, a cattlemen-run labeling program, offering exactly what proponents of COOL were looking for, a chance to differentiate their product in the market-place and build a relationship with the U.S. consumer, and they were asking the Federal government to step in.

As part of a California ranching family that dates back to the mid-1800s, I can assure you that I am proud of the cattle my family raises and the beef we produce. But having been involved in the cattle industry for decades, and knowing what I know about labeling laws and regulations, I cannot support mandatory country of origin labeling. And, it’s not just because of our labeling program, it’s the dozens of others that are out there, as well. I see the great work that Certified Angus Beef has done with marketing and there are many more.

Labeling programs are about a relationship with the producer and the consumer, and everyone in between. I and others like me maintain those relationships. We offer the customer what they want, a guarantee, and the producer a premium. And that customer trusts us because of that relationship. This is what mandatory COOL can never achieve; that same customer is never going to have a relationship with USDA.

And you don’t have to look far to see the success stories with industry-led labeling. Panorama Meats, Inc. is the nation’s largest year-round grassfed beef marketer, and they put the Born & Raised in the USA® label on all their boxes, packaging, advertising and in all stores where Panorama products are sold. Born & Raised has been a part of Panorama from the very beginning and we both are very proud of our long-term relationship.

Private sector, industry-led labels work, they allow the closest relationship between the producer and the customer. They offer a relationship—they are what marketing is about. — Carolyn Carey